Science Cafés: Bridging the gap between journalists and scientists

A longer version of this article was first published on the health news blog Uganda Scie-Girl published by science journalist, Esther Nakkazi. To read the original article and for more news on the Health Journalists Network in Uganda Science Café’s, visit Uganda Scie-Girl.

By HEJNU reporter

Once a month, usually on a Wednesday afternoon, a group of journalists converges at a public place in Kampala for two-hour conversation on health, science and research. They are members of Health Journalists Network in Uganda and their monthly meetings, Science Cafés, are steadily growing in popularity and influence.

Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing the understanding of healthcare issues and improving health literacy. The Science Cafés are the latest innovation of the Network, intended to provide a platform for public on engagement on health science subjects that are not often covered by the popular media.

Ms Esther Nakkazi, a freelance science journalist who heads the Network, says the Science Cafés provide an opportunity for in-depth interaction and understanding of a range of topics. To enable this, HEJNU invites expert speakers in civil society, medical and research fields, and keeps the numbers of participants small to allow for extensive debate and learning.

“We believe the speakers divulge more in-depth information and thorough explanations because of the small groups and the setting,” Nakkazi says.

Dr Francis Kiweewa, head of research and scientific affairs at the Makerere University Walter Reed Project, attests to the strength of this model of media engagement. He was the fifth expert speaker featured at the Science Café which focused on progress to find a cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

“This is a very impressive innovation and it is good to know that journalists are interested in what is going on in research,” he says.

Dr Kiweewa’s presentation was moderated and discussed by Mr Hilary Bainemigisha an editor at New Vision newspaper. As a passionate health writer, Bainemigisha is an active participant in the Science Cafés. He says the concept is “spot on in the way it mobilises science writers and keeps us in touch with each other as we share updates for our improvement of skills in writing science.”

The credibility of the Science Cafés comes from the journalistic experience of the HEJNU leadership team and the Network’s partnership with AVAC, a global non-profit organisation that works to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options. The quality of discourse is determined through the careful selection of participants who must be practicing journalists with an interest in or a record of covering the health beat.

William Ssenyange, a journalist at Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, is one of two HEJNU volunteers who help to organize the Science Cafés. He says one of his tasks is to ensure that only invited journalists attend the event in order to ensure that the high level of debate is maintained.

AVAC’s partnership with HEJNU has led to the creation of a programme that is relevant to the Ugandan audience and is attractive to journalists because of the strong headlining speakers.

Mr Kenneth Mwehonge of the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS-Uganda) who spoke at a recent Science Café said of his experience: “It has been excellent.”

“Sharing information on ongoing biomedical HIV prevention research with journalists is integral in having a successful role out of new prevention technologies,” he noted.

Participating journalists are encouraged to find potential news tips in each expert speaker’s presentation. However, this is not a requirement. The emphasis of the Science Cafés is learning.

Ms Evelyn Lirri, deputy chair of HEJNU, says: “We love that the journalists can write stories from the Science Café, but we do emphasise that we are more interested in them learning. So actually, when you observe, most of them are listening to the speakers.”

The impact of the Science Cafés is steadily growing. When Dr Barbara Marjorie Nanteza spoke about safe male circumcision as a form of HIV prevention at the third Science Café, she expressed her deep displeasure at how the media had reported on the topic over the years. However following her Science Café experience, Dr Nanteza who serves as Coordinator of the National Safe Male Circumcision at the AIDS Control Programme was more optimistic about the potential benefits of media partnership of this manner. She reported that a radio feature produced by one of the Science Café participants was outstanding.

“I would like to thank you for the chance you offered me to talk to the journalists about SMC (safe male circumcision) programme in Uganda. I am really happy about the media awareness created … and if they ever want to hear from me again, just let me know in advance,” she said.

New Vision’s Hilary Bainemigisha says that over time, “the quality of questions at the Science Café, the sharing of story ideas, peer criticism and final output in the different media houses is improving. Writers now have easier access to sources they have met at the cafés which eases work.”

This, notes Ms Nakkazi, is the point of the Science Cafés. She says they are intended to promote a culture of scientists sharing their research outside of the scientific community in a relaxed setting and to prepare the media understand and report on research study results.

 

“We hope they (journalists) will learn the science and create a solid network even beyond this,” she says.

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